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The best — and worst — thing about being a student of color

The best — and worst — thing about being a student of color
Los Angeles students discuss their experiences as students of color while part of a panel. (Sonali Kohli)

What is the best thing about being a student of color?

“Overcoming everyone’s low expectations, and exceeding them,” said Matthew Gonzalez, who just graduated from Garfield Magnet Senior High School and is starting UCLA this month on a full scholarship.

“Relatability,” said Marcus Crews, who graduated from UC Riverside with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and is entering the U.S. Air Force as a second lieutenant.

“We really love our culture,” said Rejeana Black, who graduated from University Senior High School in 2013 and is now a pre-photography major at Cal State Long Beach.

Being a student of color is often portrayed as a deficit. Education reports are filled with analyses of the “achievement gap,” the difference in academic performance between white and minority students.

But there are also positives, which few people ask about.

That’s why, last month, White House official David Johns queried a panel of Los Angeles students to list the advantages of being a student of color. The panelists all identified as black, Latino or mixed race, and were either current students or recent graduates of high school or college in Los Angeles. Johns, who directs the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, hosted the event in conjunction with United Teachers Los Angeles.

There are about 533,000 black and Latino students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and their experiences are all different. The students on the panel attend or graduated from schools around the district: Palisades Charter High School, University Senior High School, Garfield Magnet Senior High School, the UCLA Community School, Crenshaw High School.

Yet there was something that connected their positive experiences of finding community within a group: They often were rooted in shared negative ones — low expectations, ostracization, cultural rejection and appropriation. In that way, it’s hard to separate the best thing about being a student of color, from, well, the worst.

Gonzalez said, “We’re doubted very often,” which has driven him to be a successful Latino student and to enjoy proving those doubters wrong. Crews said moving between schools can be tough on a kid, but his racial identity helped him “relate to other people of color” who were in a similar position.

And Black, who is biracial, answered with culture as an answer to discrimination. “We have to embrace ourselves a little bit more than the next student because a lot of society is putting us down,” Black said. “So when we say our culture, we mean everything that makes us us, which is our music, our discussing history … everything that makes us beautiful and intellectual black people.”

Facing ignorance and discrimination can foster closeness between black students, she said during an interview. During her senior year at University Senior High School in West L.A., a substitute teacher described her long, blonde, curly hair as “nappy.” Black has spent years learning to love her hair despite being subjected to white standards of beauty.

It was extremely hurtful “to have a substitute that is supposed to be my teacher … insult me, insult my hair that I’ve embraced so much, from growing up hating my hair,” she said. “You shouldn’t ever say something like that.”

During the panel, Johns asked about challenges that students of color face: What does it mean to be a student of color in the classroom?

For some, it means being the only one who looks like they do.

Two students who currently attend Palisades Charter High — Jhyre Alvarado and Arianna McMillon — both said that in their school, which is about 24% Latino and 14% black, they are sometimes the only person in their high-level classes representing their ethnic groups.

“Last year when I was in 10th grade, I took AP human geography, and I was the only Latina in that class, which made me feel kind of like an outcast,” Alvarado said. She said she reported her sentiments to her Spanish teacher, who said that is typical.

“If you look around, it’s true. If you see all the other AP classes, it’s true,” Alvarado said. “The only one that’s really meant for us is probably AP Spanish.”

There is a smaller percentage of black and Latino students in AP classes compared with the student population of Palisades Charter High, assistant principal Kimberly Theard said. The school is trying to address this by adding classes and sections and by encouraging students to enroll in AP classes. However, the school focuses more on increasing the number of underrepresented students completing classes known as A-G requirements so they can be eligible for UC and CSU enrollment, Theard said.

Crews said the worst thing he heard growing up was, “You’re not like the others.” They meant other black people, and it was meant as a compliment. But comments like that made Crews, who is biracial, question whether he was “black enough” and which race he associated with more.

“Finally, my uncle helped me out, and let me know that black is whatever you make it,” Crews said.

What is the best and worst thing about being a student of color for you? Share your experiences with us.

Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @sonali_kohli or by email at sonali.kohli@latimes.com.

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